Why Did The Vietnam War Last So Long?

Many Americans, myself included, may not understand the American involvement in the Vietnam war. In particular, many want to know why so many American lives were lost and why the war lasted so long.

When most historians look at the Vietnam War and why it lasted so long, they usually state five fundamental reasons, such as Vietnam wanting unification between North and South Vietnam and freedom from the French colonial power. And the fact the United States started to prop up the weak and corrupt southern government because they believed in the Domino theory and used the flawed 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident to get more support for American involvement.

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5 Main Reasons Why The Vietnam War Lasted So Long

Most historians will agree that there are five significant reasons why the Vietnam war lasted as long as it did. These reasons also help to explain why the U.S. had such heavy involvement in the Vietnam conflict or Vietnam war.

Here are the five primary reasons for the Vietnam war explained:

Vietnam Wanted Unification Of The North And South

At the heart of the Vietnam conflict for the Vietnamese was they wanted to unify North and South Vietnam. Before World War II, Vietnam was part of the French empire and under the control of the French.

During world war two, Japan invaded Vietnam; when the Japanese were in Vietnam, the French were still there but could not defend Vietnam or the Vietnamese people from the Japanese invasion. After World War II, when the Japanese left in 1945, Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese leader, captured Hanoi and declared independence for Vietnam.

The French did not want to give up control of Vietnam. Many of them had a lot of investment in Vietnam, including rubber plantations and other types of manufacturing. Also, many French had made their home Vietnam and considered Vietnam part of France.

The French tried to retake control of Vietnam, but they were very unpopular with the Vietnamese. The Vietnam forces, under the leadership of the Viet Minh and Ho Chi Minh, continued to fight the French until the French were defeated in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu.

The French sustained huge losses at Dien Bien Phu, but Ho Chi Minh had earlier warned them of this when he said:

“You can kill ten of our men for every one we kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and we will win.”

Ho Chi Minh

A Geneva Treaty of 1954 was agreed that Vietnam would be split in two, and Ho Chi Minh and the South by a capitalist republic leader Ngo Dinh Diem would lead North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese were unhappy with this agreement as they wanted Vietnam to be united into one country.

Vietnamese Civil War To Unite North And South Vietnam

The North Vietnamese were unhappy that the South was not part of North Vietnam. At this time, many in the South were also not happy with their leader. Ngo Dinh Diem; many Vietnamese saw him as a corrupt puppet of the western governments. North Vietnamese had support from many people in the South.

In 1958 war broke out between North and South Vietnam; the North, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, was fighting for unification between North and South Vietnam.

In 1955 the United States, under the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), had advisors in Vietnam to help stop the spread of the north communist expansion. At the time, the United States had about 700 military and other personnel in South Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh, the leader of North Vietnam, famously said:

“The Vietnamese people deeply love independence, freedom and peace. But in the face of United States aggression they have risen up, united as one man.”

Ho Chi Minh

U.S. Involvement With Failed Belief In The Domino Theory

The United States had a flawed belief that if one country fell to communism, there would be a domino effect where it would take over the entire world. This kind of cold war mentality started with President Eisenhower and continued with several presidents after him.

The domino theory was also one of the main reasons the United States felt they needed to be in Vietnam and help prop up the South Vietnamese government. The US wanted to ensure that Vietnam would not become communist.

At the heart of this theory was, despite the cost to human life and other expenses to the Americans, many in the US government felt the war was worth the effort as long as communism was stopped and did not spread throughout the world.

In 1995, twenty years after the Vietnam War had ended and America withdrew from Vietnam, Robert McNamara wrote a book about Vietnam. I remember when this book came out, and many of us who had seen the effects of the Vietnam war firsthand was upset that now, twenty years later, a U.S. Official from this time would admit the war and the so-called Domino Theory was a failure.

Robert McNamara said this during an interview with the New York Times:

“There may be limits beyond which many Americans and much of the world will not permit the United States to go. The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 noncombatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one. It could conceivably produce a costly distortion in the American national consciousness and in the world image of the United States…
The domino theory enunciated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and subscribed to by his three successors was wrong: The loss of South Vietnam never threatened to undermine the entire American position in Asia or to undercut United States credibility elsewhere.”

Robert McNamara – New York Times

The Americans Were Propping Up A Weak South Vietnamese Government

The Americans were propping up a weak South Vietnamese government that President Diem led. Diem was known to be highly corrupt; he refused to give any peasants any land, which angered a large part of the population.

Ngô Đình Diệm

Pres Diem was a devout Catholic who looked down on a large Buddhist population in South Vietnam. As a result of these policies, most of the South Vietnamese population did not like him and were actively rebelling against him.

Ho Chi Minh and Viet Minh clearly understood the situation in South Vietnam and used it to get support in the South, mainly from the large Buddhist and peasant population.

In 1963 Pres John F Kennedy understood this was a problem, so he sent 16,000 military advisors to overthrow the Diem government. But Diem had destroyed the South Vietnam government so much there was never another prominent leader that could help to lead South Vietnam to victory over North Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh was a far more popular leader in South Vietnam than Diem or any other leader that came after Diem. This ensured that South Vietnam would eventually be doomed to fail and North Vietnam would take over the country.

In 1995 in the New York Times, Robert McNamara said this about the situation in South Vietnam.

“By the mid-1960’s it was clear that political stability did not exist and was unlikely to be achieved and the South Vietnamese, even with our training, assistance and logistical support, were incapable of defending themselves.”

Robert McNamara – New York Times

Even by the mid-1960s, Americans understood that the Vietnam war could not be won. Still, Americans continued to spend on military personnel, instituted a military draft, and fought a war the government was unsure America would ever win.

The 1964 Gulf Of Tonkin Incident Escalated The Situation In Vietnam

On 2 August 1964, North Vietnamese attacked the U.S. Navy destroyer, USS Maddox. The USS Maddox was patrolling in the gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of Vietnam.

Golf of Tonkin Incident

Two days later, on 4 August 1964, another attack on the US Maddock took place by North Vietnamese forces. On 4 August, the weather conditions were poor; many American soldiers doubted whether an attack had occurred.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident gave President Lyndon Johnson what he needed to present to Congress and why he needed to escalate the Vietnam war. Congress never officially declared war on Vietnam; this is why in America, it was never called the Vietnam war but always called the Vietnam conflict.

It was later discovered that the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, intentionally withheld information from Congress about the U.S. support of the South Vietnamese and the US attacks on the North Vietnamese radar stations and other targets.

The US Congress believed the attack on the US Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin was an unprovoked attack of aggression by the North Vietnamese. Today we know this was not precisely the case of what happened in those few days in 1964 on the Gulf of Tonkin.

In 1964 the U.S. Congress made a resolution called the Gulf of Tonkin, which essentially gave President Johnson permission to wage the unofficially Congressional-sanctioned war on north Vietnam. It also allowed Pres Johnson to bring in more American troops, money, and American resources to fight this war.

In 1995, in his book “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons Of Vietnam” the former U.S. Secretary of Defense under Pres Johnson said this about the Vietnam war:

“We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.”

Robert McNamara – new York Times

Over the next ten years, the United States’ involvement in Vietnam increased. By 1968 over half a million American troops were in Vietnam, and the war was costing the American people seven $77 billion a year.

When the Vietnam War ended, over 3 million Vietnamese and over 58,000 American lives would have been lost. It was a high cost on both sides of fighting for a war that should never have been fought in the first place.

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What U. S Companies Profited During The Vietnam War?

During the Vietnam War, many U.S. companies profited from the Vietnam war. Some of these companies were heading toward bankruptcy, but their involvement in the Vietnam war helped make them profitable. For many others, they earned millions of dollars each year in profits from the war that helped ensure they continued to be successful or even thriving companies.

By clicking here, you can discover What U. S Companies Profited During The Vietnam War?

Could America Have Won The Vietnam War?

America could not have won the Vietnam war as it never won the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. The Americans even had difficulty controlling the Vietnamese people in Southern Vietnam, as many were disillusioned with the Southern Vietnamese government. Ho Chi Minh, the leader of North Vietnam, fully understood that another foreign power would not control the Vietnamese heart and soul.

By clicking here, you can discover Could America Have Won The Vietnam War?

What Was The Main Reason For US Involvement In Vietnam?

The main reason for the involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War was the belief in the Domino theory; the Domino theory was a principle used to describe the effects on the world if Vietnam fell to communism. The idea was that if Vietnam became communist, the rest of Asia, New Zealand, and Australia would eventually become communist. At the time, American leaders felt they were fighting for the survival of democracy throughout the world.

By clicking here, you can learn more by reading What Was The Main Reason For U.S. Involvement In Vietnam? 

Anita L Hummel

Hi, I live in Hanoi, Vietnam but spend time traveling the region. I love to share with you things I see and learn through my travels.

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Why Did The Vietnam War Last So Long?